This is the time of year when fancy cars are coming out of storage all over New England. When the cars emerge, folks bring them to our shop with the request to “service them as necessary.” When these cars were new, it was easy to know what to do. We’d follow the guidelines in the factory service booklets. However, now that the cars are aging, a different plan is needed. This is an excerpt from a longer 3,200 word piece I wrote for the Rolls Royce magazine where I set forth my ideas on what should be done, when, and why.
You'll be able to read the whole article next month when the magazine comes out.
Here’s where we start - the basic service. Depending on what kind of car you have and what's wrong with it when we check it over, this can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
We begin by changing engine oil and filter. At Robison Service, we use genuine Crewe filters and Mobil Delvac oils. Delvac is meant for use in diesel trucks, so it has a durable and strong detergent package to keep our vintage engines clean. It’s available in synthetic and non-synthetic formulas to suit either taste. Similar oils are available from Shell, Castrol, Quaker State, Amsoil, and others.
While the oil is draining, we inspect the undercarriage for damage, leaks, broken pieces hanging down – anything out of place. You’d be surprised what we mechanics find. A fellow in Florida sent me a photo of a live coral snake he found nestled in a rear spring last year. Don’t reach where you can’t see.
Using a squirt can, we oil the moving parts on the parking brake system, and we tighten the calipers a few clicks. It’s important to keep this system oiled so it doesn’t freeze up. Many states require the Motor Vehicle safety inspector to apply the parking brake and then put the car in drive to make sure it holds. If your cables and calipers are not oiled and free they may not work at all. Even worse, they may work but not release, leaving you to crawl under the car and pull the mechanism free by hand in the yard of the inspection station. That may be a fine thing to do with a $200 clunker but it’s an extreme embarrassment to a proper Rolls Royce driver.
We look at the belts and hoses. Belts are checked for proper adjustment and cracking on the inner faces. Hoses are checked for swelling and flaring at the ends – two signs of deterioration. We check the air filter and oil any moving parts under the hood. That includes the hood latches, the throttle linkage, and the hood hinges.
At least once a year, we remove all four wheels. While they are off we clean corrosion from the hubs and apply a bit of grease. We also lubricate the wheel locks if the car has them, and we rotate tires if appropriate. People who skip this step sometimes find their wheels frozen onto the car by corrosion – a terrible problem if you have a flat tire on a Saturday night.
When you look at the tires you can judge the need for wheel alignment. Some people put the car on an alignment rack as a matter of course, but collector cars are often driven so little and so gently that scheduled alignments end up being a waste of time and money. When alignment problems do appear they are most often the result of wear or breakage in the suspension, so repairs are often called for first.
While the car is on the lift we check (and lubricate) the entire suspension and driveline – some older cars have grease fittings in the front end, and some models have grease fittings in the drive shafts. The electric shift mechanism should be oiled occasionally, as should every other linkage piece under the car. When the car is lowered we lube the door hinges and latches, and spray dry lube on the weather strips. We put graphite in the door lock cylinders and make sure they turn smoothly. Sometimes owners with pushbutton entry neglect this step, only to have the key snap in the lock when the pushbutton entry fails one cold night and the locks are too corroded to move.
Moving back under the car, we take down the drip tray that covers the brake distribution valves and clean the oil residue. It’s normal for these valves to have a tiny bit of leakage, so some spots on the tray are normal. Heavy leakage signals a problem, which is the whole reason for the inspection. The drip tray gets refitted once it’s clean.
We check and top off most of the fluids. That includes check the automatic transmission fluid, the differential oil, the power steering oil, and the coolant. You’ll notice the hydraulic fluid reservoir is not on the checklist – we do something different there.
On the subject of fluids – we always pay attention to leaks. Some owners want every single leaks fixed. With a British car, that’s occasionally an impossible dream, and it’s always a very expensive attitude to have. We talk to our clients and evaluate their comfort with small drips. Then we look under the car and try to distinguish between leaks that may hurt the car versus leaks that are merely annoying. For example, if a radiator hose blows the car could suffer extensive engine damage in a hurry. A small leak from the rear differential may require nothing more than a few ounces of top-up every season. One needs to be fixed; the other is optional.
After filling all the other fluids and warming up the car it’s time for the springtime brake bleeding. Regular bleeding of the hydraulics will reduce your car’s tendency to dart left or right on heavy braking. It will improve responsiveness of the pedal, and it often cures brake drag. These systems get air into them from both the atmosphere and from nitrogen escaping from the four accumulator spheres.
Editorial note . . . I’ve skipped the next paragraphs of the original Rolls Royce article because they are unique to Rolls Royce and Bentley. The advice in the paragraph above is relevant for any car. We bleed or flush brake systems every day at this time of year . . . .
The story continues . . . .
While the trunk is open, we check the battery. Thanks to modern technology we’ve now got battery testers that can tell us a battery’s internal condition with a fair degree of accuracy. We recommend replacement if a battery drops below 75% capacity. In addition, we look at the date code on the battery – if its more than four years old we suggest replacement because any battery that age is living on borrowed time. And it’s cheaper to replace it now in the shop than six months later when the car has to be dragged out of a downtown parking garage after it fails to start.
We check and set the tire pressures. Some owners are very sensitive to this, and ask for lower pressures (28-30PSI) for a softer ride. Other owners are more sporting. They elect to stiffen the sidewalls with a bit more air. In any case, we are guided by the ratings and recommendations for the tires fitted – they vary quite a lot from model to model.
If we are servicing the car before winter storage we usually put the tires to the maximum pressure shown on the sidewall to reduce flat spotting. If it’s spring, we lower them back down. We always put the spare to the maximum pressure as spare tires are often neglected and it may not get checked again for a long while.
We always check the operation of the air conditioner and heating system. Some older cars will need the air conditioner topped off every few years. If the leak is more severe than that, it’s probably worth repairing. In New England we sometimes pull the grille to remove insects and debris from the condenser fins. The need for that service will depend upon where you live.
We’ve already checked the brake pressure lamps, but now we check the rest of the fascia warning lamps, and all exterior lamps. We also check the wiper blades, the washers, and all the accessory equipment. We check the seat belts and buckles.
If the car is new enough to have self diagnostics, we check for stored faults. Stored codes can point the way to problems that are not yet visible, so it’s important to check them. Any codes found should be addressed and cleared so they don’t send future service personnel on wild goose chases after things you fixed the year before.
Depending where you live, it may be necessary to clean out body drains and intake screens. If leaves and debris clog the drains you can end up with expensive water damage inside the car.
Finally, we take the vehicle on a road test and note any strange behavior. We pay attention to knocks when the car rolls over bumps, pulling or drifting when driving straight ahead, pulling on braking, and how the engine runs. We make sure the transmission feels normal and gear changes are smooth.
We recommend waxing the car at least twice a year. At the same time, we’d treat the leather with Hide Food to keep it soft. Detailing, however, is the subject of a whole ‘nother article so I won’t cover that here.
If you follow the maintenance guidelines above, you should be rewarded with a comfortable, reliable, and enjoyable motorcar whose lifespan is essentially indefinite. If you look at this work and think it’s expensive – you’re right! But the alternative – repairing breakdowns caused by neglect costs even more.
I’ve had people read this and exclaim, these cars sure do need a lot of care! Actually, that’s not true. The care they need is the same as any car. What you see here is a difference in attitude. These service schedules are meant to preserve the car in good mechanical order indefinitely. The maintenance schedule for a new Ford, in contrast, assumes the car will be on a slow slide to the scrap yard as soon as it leaves the showroom. If you applied this Rolls Royce service philosophy to a Chevrolet or a Lincoln you’d probably be rewarded with similar durability.